“Hey, That’s My Idea!”: When Works of Fiction are so Similar You Want to Sue

This morning an interesting story showed up on my Facebook feed: Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the Avengers movies, was hit by a lawsuit over alleged copyright infringement. In the lawsuit, an author by the name of Peter Gallagher (not the actor) alleges that Joss Whedon and the film company Lionsgate, among others, stole the idea for the 2012 movie Cabin in the Woods from his own self-published novel The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines, which he first put out in 2006. Apparently both the book and the movie have similar premises (spoiler alert!): a bunch of teens go hang out for the weekend in an old cabin, they’re attacked by monsters, and they find out they’re subjects in a horror-film scenario run by a strange organization or group. Gallagher also says that several of the characters in both works have similar names and personalities. No word yet on what the defendants in the case say or whether the lawsuit will actually go through or be thrown out of court (for the full story, click here).

Strangely enough, something similar happened to me last year. I was on Facebook and I saw on my news feed that a movie company that produces really interesting horror movies was getting ready to release a new film and had just uploaded its first trailer online. When I read the synopsis of the movie and saw the trailer, I was instantly reminded of a short story I wrote back in June 2013, one with an eerily similar premise and which I plan to expand into a novel when I get a chance. I will admit, the thought to sue did cross my mind.

But I didn’t. This was partly because I’d never published the short story. I’d sent it to a friend who recommended I expand it and I did speak of it one or two times on my blog, but beyond that it’s been languishing on the shelf until I feel it’s time to start expanding it. It’s a little too much to suppose that they somehow found a single post on my blog back in 2013 or maybe even hacked my flash drive and used that material to create their movie. That sounds more like a conspiracy theory or something.

Not only that, but I felt that what I was going for with my story set it apart enough from the movie in question that I didn’t need a lawsuit. And finally, I’m just finishing up my undergraduate degree. I have no time and none of the expenses for such a lawsuit, even if I was inclined for one.

But just because I didn’t feel that copyright infringement had happened here doesn’t mean it never happens. There are quite a few cases where judges have found that movie producers or book writers or TV showrunners have owed someone money over a possible infringement. Some ways to prevent yourself from being caught in either the plaintiff’s or defendant’s side include, of course, to seek out every copyright protection you can get. For example, with every book I publish I make sure to send it to the US Copyright Office first. I know, technically publication or sending it to myself in the mail is considered copyright enough, but it helps to have federal protection.

Another thing to do is, if you suspect that someone’s infringed on your copyright, that you do as much research as possible. See if you actually have something to worry about. Also remember that there are plenty of stories that have similarities (like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have similarities, for example), so keep that in mind while you research. It could turn out your work and the work you’re researching only has a few similarities, and the ones there are just the kind anyone could come up with.

But if there’s enough resemblance that you can’t pass it off as just a few coincidences, then perhaps you might want to see if a few more people see the resemblances. If they see them too, then maybe you should consider consulting a lawyer.

Of course, I am no lawyer and I’ve never had to worry about this. If anyone has experience with this subject, please let us know your story and tell us what happened. We’d love your feedback.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on this Whedon-Gallagher story and see how it turns out. Because this could be our story. Anyone of us could go through this, as any one of us could have a copyright infringement lodged against our own properties simply to con us or someone could steal our works and sell them for their own profit. And we need to watch so we know how to fight it and keep it from happening to us.

25 Comments

  1. Unless there are profound measurable damages and big time money no copyright atty will waste his time. Not much you can do. Happens all the time.

    1. Oh, that sucks. Thanks for that clarification.

  2. I had it with my MS (not published yet, still on hold). One of my favourite authors put out a book, I read the blurb, and one particular plot point sank my heart, because it seemed he was going in the same direction with a worst case scenario sort of concept. As it turns out, he took things in a very different direction as he went along, so no harm, no foul.

  3. I would be very careful before trying to sue someone. There are only so many plot types out there, and it’s easy for more than one person to have similar ideas. The thought of teenagers in a house where creepy things happen has been done a lot. And how many times has there been a Romeo and Juliet trope where the parents don’t approve of the relationship? With all the books, TV shows and movies, there are bound to be similarities along the way.

    The distinction is how the story is told. How does it play out? What twists are involved? Unless the story is an exact copycat of another work, I wouldn’t worry about it. Similar themes are going to happen. And someone is bound to have a similar idea you do at some point because there are only so many ideas out there. For example, in romance, a man and woman agreeing to marriage of convenience solely for money (on one end) and the promise of a child (on the other) is a popular idea and has been done quite a bit.

    I think too many people are quick to sue.

    I’ve also heard of authors getting all bent out of shape when another author uses a similar look on a cover, even though the royalty-free stock photos are allowed to be used on other covers.

    Before suing, it’s important to take a step back and carefully consider whether or not what you’re looking at violates actual copyright. I’ve had my books stolen, and they were word for word. Other authors have had the same words, and it’s just characters’ names that are changed. Those are easy incidences of infringement.

    Slightly off-topic: A new wave of false claims of copyright infringement are happening. People are trying to make a quick buck by sending Amazon a false DCMA Takedown Notice to get a book removed. Then they turn around and “ghostwrite” it for another author who then puts it back up. So I would definitely be careful about this issue of suing. It’s possible that it’ll become harder and harder for the real copyright holder to maintain their rights in the fear of “everyone’s stealing my work”.

    This is one area where self-publishing has a big negative. With publishers, they acted as a buffer to protect your work. These days, it’s too easy to get anything up there. But even so, I would be careful when looking to sue. Most of the time, you’re not dealing with someone who intentionally steals your work. It really is theirs. It just happens you weren’t the only person to come up with a certain idea. Ideas can’t be copyrighted. It’s the execution of those ideas that can be copyrighted. And yes, I suggest registering the copyright with the US Copyright (if you’re in the US) because if you don’t, you might find it difficult to find a lawyer who will work with you. (I ran into this when my books were stolen. I didn’t register my books then because once it’s written it’s protected, but since the lawyers I talked to wanted the actual registration, I make sure I register everything now.)

    I had to edit this comment to clarify what I was saying. 🙂 I didn’t realize it was so jumbled until I read back through it.

    1. I’m starting to think maybe I should edit this post a bit. I’m starting to feel a little silly.

      1. Don’t feel silly. This is a great discussion that I think is worth having. 🙂 This is very timely, too, especially given the popularity of self-publishing.

        1. Yeah, with its popularity come people who are looking for ways to exploit it. We have to have the discussions so that we can fight these guys and protect ourselves.

  4. M T McGuire says:

    An author ive known on the net for some years was in a sticky position a few months back. His book got onto the editors desk on Authonomy and was critiqued by an HC editor. They liked it but said no to production. Two years later they launched a series of books which they’d produced in house along exactly the same theme. My other half is a lawyer who works in that field. He discovered there was a precedent where people who had submitted a game show idea to itv which was turned down but then put into production had sued and won. However, it costs a lot of money and the best thing to do is grit your teeth and chalk it up to experience. His closing comment was that the only people who would get anything out of such a lawsuit would be lawyers. Pirate sites are different but with a huge outfit no, definitely not.

    Cheers

    MTM

    1. That’s a case where I can definitely see it happening. I hadn’t thought of that.

      As you said, though, I grit my teeth. It’s awful when it happens, but I think the only people who would really win are the lawyers. It must make their day. 😦

      1. M T McGuire says:

        Yeh… sad but true. You need millions to take on the big boys and they know it. I guess what you have to tell yourself is that you have more ideas where that one came from and they don’t.

        1. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    2. That’s terrible. I’m sorry that had to happen to your friend and that he can’t do anything about it. Best of luck to him.

      1. M T McGuire says:

        I think his books are doing rather better than theirs… which is revenge of the best sort! 😉

        Cheers

        MTM

        1. It is the best revenge. I’m glad he’s doing better! 😀

  5. Will Once says:

    Hmm, I feel a “yes but” answer coming on.

    Plagiarism does happen, but…

    There are only so many stories that are possible and there are millions of books being published every year. This means that it is inevitable that similar or near identical stories will be produced. This is particularly common when people are responding to the zeitgeist and writing on similar themes.

    How many times has a major incident happened like the sinking of the Titanic and 9/11 and the newspapers uncover a book or a film written years earlier with striking similarities to what actually happened? This isn’t anything spooky, supernatural or a conspiracy. It is simply probability in action.

    The human brain is poor at understanding probability. We are conditioned to look for patterns – it’s a good survival instinct from the days when we needed to spot predators in the undergrowth. But that means we look for patterns in randomness. When we see a coincidence we look for a reason to explain it, without realising that coincidences will happen in a random world.

    I don’t know about this particular case. It may be a case of plagiarism or it may not. But “teenagers in a cabin in the woods” is such a hackneyed plot that my money would be on pure coincidence.

    1. That’s kind of what I’m betting on too. We’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out.

  6. MishaBurnett says:

    Robert Heinlein was once investigated by the government because one of his published stories described an atomic power plant in ways that were very similar to the (then still classified) Manhattan Project. Heinlein wasn’t a spy, though, he was a careful writer with a background in engineering, and given certain problems with the process, there were certain obvious solutions.

    “The Cabin In The Woods” and “The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines” are evidently both concerned with the same problem–“How do you explain the plot of a cheesy slasher film so that it makes sense logically?”–and so it is not at all unlikely that different people came up with the same solutions independently.

    I have seen the first, not read the second, so I can’t really comment on the similarities, myself. However, both seem to draw upon the same myth pool and so similarities in characters–even names–is also not evidence of plagiarism.

    I’ve written elsewhere that I believe that there are no “good ideas”. It’s all in the execution.

    1. Wow, I’d never heard that story. It’s pretty funny though, because I have an idea for a story that centers on that scenario. I do agree with you that it’s all about the execution. I wonder if maybe Gallagher thought the executions of both stories were a little too similar.

      1. MishaBurnett says:

        Or maybe he just figured he could cash in on a big selling film. They will probably settle out of court just to make him go away, and he’ll take home more than I make in a couple of years.

        1. Probably. Or they’ll just drag his butt into court and make him look like a fool. That’s the more painful option.

  7. First of all, Joss Whedon is brilliant, and I can’t imagine him EVER needing to steal an idea from someone else. (Can you tell I’m a big fan?) So I’m hoping that suit goes nowhere.

    I don’t think there are really any more new stories. Just about everything has been done, although there are lots of variations on the same ideas. Those variations and the delivery make the story unique. Also, if we read and watch movies a lot, those plots will get in our heads, and we might draw ideas from what we read and hear. That’s not plagiarism, it’s just the brain always draws from what it knows. However…if the story is almost exactly like yours, you might have something to worry about, and then you would have to decide what to do about it.

    1. Preaching to the choir. I’m a fan too.
      And a lot of people agree, there are a lot of stories but probably no original ones anymore (though a movie I saw recently felt pretty original). It’s just when they’re exactly alike that you have to worry.

  8. I am a former reporter so through that experience I knew journalists often cover the same event. They have the same facts, but how their story develops all ends up differently. When I worked for a certain newspaper, I wrote a column about a personal humorous Thanksgiving which happened to me. Since I worked for the paper, that story belonged to the newspaper not me. However, I rewrote the same story with the same facts for my book, Seasons of the Soul. I knew I was okay with it since the facts were the same, but the story was not told verbatim from my newspaper column. But to please my husband’s anxiety, I contacted a copyright lawyer who I used to look over my first book publisher’s contract. She confirmed what I already knew that since the story was rewritten, even with the facts being the same, this story was a separate product. Thus, there was no liability for copyright infringement. I hope my words help ease a lot of your fears and many of the Lord’s blessings to you.

    1. You too Janet. Thanks for your input, it’s invaluable.

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